The road ahead of them seemed never ending, a long, vast white wasteland only occasionally blurred by swirling drifts of snow. The rising sun should have been a blessing, a bit of warmth to drive the chill from their bones, but Finn felt no evidence of its distant heat. Only the frigid wind fluttering through his skin-tight clothes and nibbling at his exposed skin. At least Logren had finally consented to allowing him and his brother to walk without silver.
Lorelei seemed to have forgiven her brother, at least enough to continue on the journey to Dunvarak, but she avoided both Logren and the mage, sticking close to Finn as they traveled. He was glad to have her near, her presence made him forget at times just how tight and uncomfortable those borrowed clothes were and he barely even felt them chafing against his skin in all the wrong places.
She was quiet though, introspective as she watched her booted feet scuff through the powdery snow beneath them. He wondered what was on her mind, but a part of him felt like he didn’t dare ask to be let into her sullen thoughts. She’d already let him in much deeper than she wanted to, and while he was grateful for those brief glimpses into the heart and soul of the woman he desperately hoped to one day call his mate, he was learning to temper his impatience.
Through the long, cold night he’d lain awake beside her, listening to her heart, to the sound of her breath as it matched the rhythm of his own. He could only just see her in the dim light of the fire closest to the tent they shared, but he’d spent every minute of that restless night memorizing each line and curve of her delicate face until he could close his eyes and still see her.
“Bren said something to me last night that I can’t stop thinking about it.” She spoke softly, as if she only wanted him to hear and he slowed down their pace a little to put some space between them and the soldiers just ahead.
He’d never admit it, but those words made him nervous. The mage hadn’t said as much in their brief time together while he’d been raising the barrier around camp, but he obviously had his eye on Lorelei. Worse was that he and everyone else in their unit seemed to feel the connection with her Logren had mentioned the night before, like they knew her in ways Finn himself might never know. How could he ever compete with that? Her spirits did seem lighter when she was talking to Bren, but he supposed he only had himself and his bigoted mouth the blame for that. He should have taken comfort from the fact that she’d at least allowed him to sleep in her tent, but until she could look him in the eye and clearly see what dwelt in his heart he couldn’t afford to take any chances on her getting close to someone else.
“What did he say?”
“He asked me if after everything that’s happened, after all I’ve learned about Aelfric, I can still call Rivenn home.” She didn’t look at him when she spoke, but past him, squinting into the endless, blinding white landscape. “And I have thought about it, a lot over the last few days, actually, but I don’t think it really sunk in for me until I woke up this morning that I have no home.”
There were thousands of clever and reassuring things he could have said to her, but all he managed to do was drop his hand on her shoulder and squeeze.
As morning wore on into afternoon, they stopped only briefly to rest and eat. Fierce wind battered relentlessly at the travelers. Finn began to fret that the feeling would never return to the exposed skin of his face and wrists and his joints ached from the dry cold. At least when they were moving he didn’t notice it as much, but sitting still too long was agony. The few times he teasingly asked Lorelei if she wanted to ride on his back, he dreaded that she might actually take him up on his offer. She was light enough, but in that bitter cold even her lithe form would feel like a giant on his back.
After their short break they returned to the road with a promise from Logren that they would see Dunvarak just after sunset if they all agreed to travel through without stopping to rest again. A feast would be waiting for them in the warm halls of the keep when they arrived, and that promise seemed to be enough to keep everyone going through the long afternoon.
Lorelei remained beside him and his brother staggered through the snow several paces behind them, occasionally muttering inaudibly to himself beneath the scarves he’d wrapped around his face. Before leaving camp that morning, Viln warned him that they may be walking into their own doom in Dunvarak. There was no telling what awaited them when Logren and his half-breeds marched them into their city.
Finn had to stop himself mid-thought. He needed something else to call them if he wanted to avoid Lorelei’s cold shoulder, but there wasn’t a word in his vocabulary for the bastard sons and daughters of the U’lfer. Dunvarakians, he thought with a smug nod. It was a mouthful, but it would keep him out of trouble.
“I can’t feel my feet,” Lorelei complained, leaning into him as she walked in order to keep herself up. Her shoulder nudged into the fur cloaking that padded his arm, but he could barely feel the heat of her body even with her so close to him.
“How are you liking your exile now, little brother?” Viln stumbled in to march behind them.
“Best time of my life!” Even if he was completely miserable, he would never let his brother hear him say it.
“Rest assured it will only get worse.”
“Why are you always trying to spoil everything, Viln? If you didn’t want an adventure, you should have stayed home.”
“Someone has to teach you to be realistic. Whatever awaits us up there,” he gestured over Lorelei’s head, “I can promise you it will not be a hearty welcome and a warm meal for us.”
“You don’t know that,” Lorelei pointed out, but even she didn’t sound convinced.
Finn followed the gloved curve of his brother’s finger toward the radiating silver light of Dunvarak in the distance. He didn’t know what to expect, his mind picturing a small, frozen hamlet consisting of a few ramshackle buildings dripping with icicles, maybe a handful of starving goats staggering through the snow, and a few frozen children with chattering teeth in rags but he couldn’t have been more wrong. Rising from the vast, sturdy walls was the tallest tower Finn had ever seen. Catching the last rays of the sun before it dipped below the horizon, the whole tower glowed almost unnaturally. Even after the sun disappeared, that silver glow lingered, lighting up the city.
The high walls around the city stretched for miles in both directions, with only a few of the buildings actually rising above the top of the wall to give the travelers an idea of waited beyond them. There certainly seemed to be far more to Dunvarak than ramshackle houses and a few stray goats roaming around. Even from a distance he could feel the warmth radiating off the city, the air temperature shifting until the snow beneath his boots felt slushier. The soldiers tromped through it as if they’d walked that slippery road a thousand times, but Lorelei was so transfixed on the proximity of their destination she kept slipping into him. Not that he minded, but his own fixation with the rising city up ahead had them practically falling all over each other.
“I didn’t expect it to be so big,” Lorelei muttered to him. “A city that size, how could such a thing exist down here without anyone knowing about it?”
“We have several mages in our ranks who work night and day to keep us off the maps and out of the general consciousness of the world,” Logren informed her as he wove through the last few bodies between them. He reached out to catch her arm when she slid through the snow again, laughing heartily as he gently yanked her back to her feet. She was still uncomfortable with the man, and with good reason after the story he’d told the night before. She righted herself with an embarrassed huff, her face glowing a soft shade of pink as she let go of him, determined to walk on her own. “I’ve already sent word ahead to announce your coming. I would like you beside me when we pass through the gates.”
“Of course,” she nodded slowly and turned to look at Finn. “But Finn should be with us too.”
“As you wish”, Logren agreed. “Though I must warn you now that once we arrive both he and his brother will join their U’lfer brethren for questioning.”
“No,” she shook her head. “I will not stand by and watch my friends be dragged off to be tormented for answers to questions they surely don’t have..”
“Sister, it is but a mere precaution.”
“I don’t care, brother.” She stiffened, tilting her chin upward like a true queen who had spoken her wishes and expected everyone to bustle about making them reality. “Vilnjar and Finn are my friends. They were exiled from their home on my account and I will not see them harmed simply because you think they might have some answers you seek.”
“No one is going to harm them. You have my word.”
“Then I will be with them when they are questioned and that is my final word on the matter.”
Finn couldn’t help but turn an appreciative look in her direction. She may have been spoiled and a little bit bratty from time to time, but she knew how to wield power when it suited her. Logren leaned back to appreciate her command presence and then turned his gaze toward Dunvarak again.
“No one in Dunvarak would dare deny the Light of Madra.”
The grace in her expression faltered at his use of that term, but just as quickly she offered a single nod and said, “Good.”
She followed her brother to the front of the line, reaching back to grab Finn’s forearm so she could tug him along with her. Stumbled over his own boots to keep up with her, apologizing several times as he bumped into people along the way.
Even though they could see the city, it still took more than an hour before they reached the gates. As they traveled the path became an actual road, wide, flat paving stones leading all the way to the city. There was evidence of grass sprouting beside the stones, bright green blades poking through the melted, dirty snow that summoned a strange sense of homesickness Finn hadn’t expected to feel. It had only been two days since they’d passed through the mountains, but it felt like a lifetime ago that he’d felt the warmth of the sun on his face and the cushion of grass beneath his boots. He hadn’t thought he’d even miss those things when he finally got away from the Edgelands, and for the most part being with Lorelei made it hard to think about anything but her, but for a moment he didn’t feel any more free than he had when he was in Drekne. If anything the restrictions on his destination, the bitter cold and endless miles of snow made him feel more confined than ever before.
As if she sensed the fluctuation in his mood, Lorelei leaned away from her brother and into him, her shoulder nestling against his arm and the windblown fur edging her cloak brushing against his face when he turned his head down to look at her. Few men would ever admit such a thing, even to themselves, but the nearness of his mate made even the most confining, even painful circumstances endurable.
He wished he could just tell her that, tell her that when she wasn’t near him he ached for her in ways that made every part of him feel like it was on fire from the inside out. But he was not her brother, and the words Rhiorna had spoken to him still resonated in his mind. It wasn’t his place to tell her what path she was meant to walk, he only knew he was meant to walk it with her, to stand beside her until the end no matter what.
“You’re always so warm,” she murmured, raising those incredible golden eyes to meet his gaze.
Finn lifted his arm for her, allowing her to nestle in closer to his chest as he lowered that arm over her shoulders and held her closer. “The U’lfer tend to be relatively hot-blooded, but something about being near you makes my blood boil in my veins.”
She drew out just a little, the corner of her mouth twitching and her face flushing a soft shade of pink. He couldn’t help his own smile, a mischievous, almost arrogant grin upon realizing he’d gotten under her skin with that comment. He just hoped he stayed there, under her skin, on her mind and in her good graces long enough to leave a lasting impression because if she ever decided her heart felt more at home with someone else his entire world would come crashing down around him.
Nestling her body close to his again, the bellow of horns blasted from the towers flanking both sides of the gate. The ground shook and rumbled as the soldiers inside the city began to raise the entrance to welcome them, revealing the legs of at least a hundred bodies gathered to greet the blessed Light of Madra with bright torches and billowing black banners bearing a silver-embroidered sigil of the Mother moon with a blood-red wolf silhouetted against her full, round body.
Finn felt her trembling under his arm, her whole body shaking as if her legs might give out beneath her, but before he could offer her the reassurance she needed and let her know that no matter what he was there, Logren reached for her and tugged her away from him. There was a cold space where she’d stood just moments before, but she looked back over her shoulder at him almost pleadingly, her beautiful eyes round with fear.
“I’m right here, Princess,” he promised, adding so softly no one but him heard when he said, “I’ll always be right here.”